Craig Kimbrel hadn’t pitched two innings in a game since 2011, and the Braves weren’t about to have him try to get six outs now. It’s a decision they’ll think about all winter after Juan Uribe hit a go-ahead two-run homer off David Carpenter, leading the Dodgers past the Braves and into the NLCS on Monday.
The easy narrative is that the Dodgers asked their stud to do something he’s never done before and the Braves wouldn’t. And the Dodgers won and the Braves didn’t.
Of course, that’s oversimplifying things. And the Dodgers’ decision could have backfired in a big way, even though Clayton Kershaw was as good as they possibly could have hoped for while pitching on three days’ rest. He allowed just two unearned runs in six innings, but he did leave with the game tied. He also left earlier than he might have otherwise, and the Braves were able to capitalize and take a 3-2 lead in the seventh against Ronald Belisario.
But then the eighth inning came. And it’s worth noting that the Braves are on their fourth setup man of the season after Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty succumbed to season-ending injuries and Jordan Walden’s shoulder problems left him a little shaky. Carpenter’s been great, but he’s no Kimbrel and he did give up a two-run homer to Hanley Ramirez in Game 2. The Braves had Kimbrel warming up behind Carpenter in the eighth, but decided not to bring him in even after Yasiel Puig’s leadoff double. Uribe, after missing a sac bunt attempt, followed with the homer that made it a 4-3 game.
The thing is the both the Braves and Dodgers knew situations like this might arise. The Dodgers knew how the NLDS schedules were laid out. Both teams had their respective divisions wrapped up in September. Both could have experimented. The Braves could have tried Kimbrel in a two-inning save. The Dodgers could have used Kershaw on three days’ rest and then given him extra rest afterwards. It not only would have provided the teams with data, but it would have given Kimbrel and Kershaw both a better idea how to approach the situations in the bigger games. But major league teams are rarely that proactive.
Now the Braves are headed home in early October again. If you count last year’s one-game wild card, this makes eight straight postseason series lost by the team dating back to 2001. In this case, the better team won. Still, being so close to have a decisive Game 5 back in Atlanta will have the team thinking “what if?” all offseason long.